I watched Gene Hickerson come out on the field, watched him test his cleats against the turf, watched him move his legs up and down and rub his hands together, and all the time, from a vantage point atop the roof of Cleveland Stadium, I knew exactly what he was feeling, exactly what he was thinking. I had a horrible empty feeling. I felt lonely. I felt lost. For the first time in 11 years I was attending a professional football game in which the Green Bay Packers were not playing.
It was Dec. 29, 1968, the Cleveland Browns, with Hickerson at right guard, were meeting the Baltimore Colts for the NFL championship, and I was in an open shed on the roof of the stadium, getting whipped by the wind off Lake Erie, working as a commentator for WLUK-TV, Green Bay.
The game began, and I watched Hickerson working against Billy Ray Smith of the Colts, experiencing as much trouble with Smith as I often had. I watched Dan Sullivan, the right guard of the Colts, working against Walter Johnson, the bruising defensive tackle of the Browns who had always impressed me with his strength, handling Johnson well, helping to open big holes for Tom Matte to crash through. I studied the line play, and in my mind I pulled, I trapped, I pass-blocked and I suffered.
It was so frustrating, perched on the roof, a spectator after winning three straight NFL championships and five in seven seasons. Not until that afternoon did I fully realize how much we had surrendered during the 1968 football season. I wished right then that every member of the Packers could have sat up there with me and felt what I felt, and if, by some miracle, we all could have watched the 1968 title game before that season began, I'm positive the season would have been different.
For the Green Bay Packers the 1968 NFL season was a disaster. From 1965 through 1967 we lost a total of only nine games; we won, including playoff contests, 38 In 1968 we lost seven games and won only six Everybody, if seemed, had his own explanation for what went wrong Some people said flatly that the sole difference was the absence of Vince Lombardi, who, after nine years as coach and general manager, had decided to devote himself to the general manager's job Some people insisted that the Packers had simply gotten a little too old to do the job.
I don't think a simple explanation works. I've always heard that football is a game of inches, and in 1968 the Green Bay Packers lost a lot of inches: our place-kicking was far off its 1967 form—minus one inch there; we were hit heavily by injuries, particularly in the defensive line—minus a second inch; we missed Lombardi's inspirational genius—minus a third inch; we missed Lombardi's tactical offensive brains—minus a fourth inch; we didn't seem to get our share of the breaks in officials' calls and the bounce of the ball—minus a fifth inch. We lost too many inches. And there were fractions of inches lost within the inches.
At the start of the season, however, I never suspected we were aiming for such a fall. I knew I was getting older—I knew that many of us were getting older—but I still felt certain that we were strong enough to dominate the Central Division. It didn't look like a tough division. Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota all had major weaknesses; not one of them had a particularly gifted quarterback.
The retirement of Coach Lombardi—and the elevation of Phil Bengtson, our defensive coach for nine years under Lombardi, to the head coaching job—didn't seem an insurmountable blow. Nobody thought Phil would be another Lombardi—he's a totally different sort of man, a gentler man, a calmer man—but we all knew that Phil was dedicated to perfection every bit as much as Lombardi was. Our defensive team has always been a reflection of Phil's brilliance, a magnificently coordinated, magnificently trained unit. And the defensive players loved Phil; to a man, they wanted to win for him. I know I felt a great deal of affection for Phil, even though I had never played directly under him, and once, early in the season, I mentioned to Jim Weatherwax, a defensive tackle, "We've got to win this game. We've got to have a good season for Phil."
"Yeah, we want to win for Phil," Wax said. "And we also want to win to show everybody that it wasn't just Lombard these past few years, that it wasn't all him, that we can have a good season without him."
I suppose several of the guys had that feeling, a resentment that Lombardi had gotten too much credit for their efforts. I never felt that way myself; I honestly felt that Vince was the difference between a good team and a great team. In professional football the teams are just about equal physically; all of them have players with strength and size and speed. The big difference between winning and losing, I think, is motivation, and nobody'll ever deny that Vince motivated us. He made us hate him much of the time, but even this hatred, this half-serious suspicion that he treated us all like dogs, served to unify us. We had a single target for all our frustrations, and maybe that's one of the fractions we lost in 1968